Improving the sustainability of agricultural systems through educational research: Reflections from an LTER Fellow

Graduate researcher, Craig Kohn, is a dual-Ph.D. candidate with Dr. Andy Anderson in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education Department and with the Environmental Science & Policy Program at Michigan State University (MSU).


Craig Kohn is a graduate researcher at MSU, working in both environmental science and educational research.

One of the key objectives of K-12 schooling in the United States is to prepare students to make more informed decisions in their personal and professional lives. This is particularly relevant for classroom science instruction. In fact, the need for more informed decision-making was a key motivation for recent widespread reforms in K-12 science education, as most visibly seen in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). At this time, twenty states (containing over a third of the nation’s students) utilize these standards; the science standards of another 24 states are based on the same peer-reviewed research as the NGSS

Ensuring more informed decision-making is especially important for the educational preparation of future agriculturalists. Nearly three quarters of the land in the contiguous United States is used for agriculture and private forestry. Decisions made by agriculturalists affect sustainability in areas as diverse as food security, climate change mitigation, renewable energy production, and supply of wildlife habitat. Furthermore, many existing conventional agricultural practices are not well-suited for human-caused changes that will impact food production – for example, rising demands for natural resources, or changing precipitation patterns. As such, preparing future agriculturalists to make evidence-based decisions will have significant impacts on our local communities, our nation, and the planet. 

As a dual-Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University, my work occurs in both environmental science and educational research. In addition to exploring how agricultural systems will need to change and evolve in the coming decades, I also investigate how to design science instruction so that it optimizes student preparation for informed decision making in agricultural contexts. Specifically, I am designing curriculum that seeks to improve the likelihood that future agriculturalists will adopt more sustainable practices in their work

In order to address questions of how agriculturalists can most sustainably and sufficiently produce food, I primarily rely on qualitative research interviews and collaborations with those with expertise in the field (such as KBS LTER staff and researchers). I interviewed dozens of agriculturalists, agricultural scientists, and agricultural instructors in order to synthesize their views and better understand their perspectives. I use computer software to analyze these interviews in a systematic and objective manner. This provides me with insights into what are the key threats to sustainable food production and what might work as potential solutions to these threats. These interviews also help me to better understand how these different groups of individuals perceive these threats and solutions in different ways. This will be an important consideration for developing effective options that are recognizable and acceptable to agriculturalists.

To help prepare future agriculturalists to adopt more sustainable practices, I work directly with high school agricultural instructors and their students. Through funding from the National Science Foundation, I am developing open-sourced curriculum for use in high school agricultural classrooms. I am designing this curriculum using many of the latest findings in educational research about what constitutes effective science instruction. I then use test data, teacher and student interviews, and classroom observations in order to assess the effectiveness of this curriculum and make revisions. This iterative approach to collaborative educational investigation is reflective of a particular methodology known as Design-Based Research. 

Craig Kohn ASM 2019
LTER investigators gather at the annual All Scientist Meeting. Such events have provided me with opportunities to work with LTER personnel at KBS facilities have provided me with a detailed perspective in regards to how to support more sustainable agricultural systems, and how to prepare agriculturalists to increasingly adopt these practices.

When I interview students my goal is to determine how students are thinking about these questions and what evidence they are using to weigh the tradeoffs for different options. Specifically, I look for evidence that the manner in which students think about agricultural production is becoming more systematic and evidence-based. I also look for indications that these cognitive changes are increasingly occurring outside of the classroom in their everyday lives. When I interview teachers, I am trying to determine how they think about teaching, and how their choices affect specific student outcomes like informed decision-making. These are key considerations because the manner in which teachers choose to implement a curriculum has a significant impact on whether a curriculum achieves its intended objectives. 

I also utilize classroom observations, field notes, and student classwork to address my research questions. In addition to supporting curriculum development, these sources of data also provide insights in regards to how particular educational theories can be effectively implemented in specific contexts like high school agriscience classrooms. 

To date I have completed two years of data collection and analysis from my classroom case studies. One preliminary finding indicates that a combination of factors improve students’ capacity to adopt more informed decision-making. These include classroom science instruction that emphasizes evidence-based argumentation and model-based reasoning, as well as providing students with instruction that is situated and contextualized. Moving forward, a key challenge will be to identify how and why particular aspects of the curriculum are critical for enabling more informed decision-making, and how these aspects can be included within the constraints of school-based curriculum in order to support these outcomes. 

If our goal is to enable students’ classroom learning to transfer to decisions they make in specific contexts like agriculture, then their educational preparation needs to explicitly incorporate the kinds of authentic scenarios and contexts in which they will one day make those decisions. Regular interactions in community-based settings that are explicitly relevant to students’ future career paths seems to be very helpful for supporting these kinds of outcomes. This kind of science instruction looks very different from the decontextualized classroom-based experiences we typically associate with traditional educational approaches. 

Through the LTER Summer Fellowship program, I had the opportunity benefit from the wealth of knowledge and experience across the scientists and staff in the program. This has been exceptionally helpful for addressing questions of how agriculture will need to change to adapt to changing circumstances, and how to prepare individuals to make these specific decisions. Through regular interactions with LTER individuals from a wide range of disciplines, I have been able to refine my research questions, tailor my methodologies, and develop stronger and more productive investigations around my research questions. In particular, Nick Haddad, Director of the KBS LTER, has helped to me understand exactly how agriculture could be engineered to optimize both agricultural productivity and ecosystem function in rural landscapes. This has been helpful for identifying specific practices that we would wish future agriculturalists to adopt. Additionally, by collaborating with individuals with extensive social science expertise, such as Julie Doll and Sandra Marquart-Pyatt, I was able to design effective interview protocols and probe much more deeply into my qualitative data. This enabled me to better understand the differences in how agriculturalists perceive agricultural sustainability, and how this might affect the design of my curriculum. Overall, my interactions with LTER personnel have provided me with a detailed perspective in regards to how to support more sustainable agricultural systems, and how to prepare individuals to increasingly adopt these practices.